new slang

Call That Short-Term Romance a Comet, Not a Fling

Halley’s Comet in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

This year, at the height of traditional summer-fling season, I found myself in the exact unexpected bare-shouldered romance that July calls for. There were missed flights, Negronis, and one problem: Despite enjoying all these classically flingy qualities of fast romance, my summer fling did not like the word “fling.”

Lucky for everyone, my fling had just learned an alternative term: a comet. Someone that springs into your life quickly and hotly, then disappears, hopefully to return sometime within your lifetime? That’s a comet.

Plus, “comet” was a collision of so many of my interests. It allowed me to combine a strictly-symbol-based understanding of space with a love of new terms for the ways we all interact romantically and kiss each other. I still like fling, but I conceded that it had an association with the haphazard. Brevity and lack of sustainability doesn’t have to mean carelessness, my companion and I agreed. A comet is both an occasion and an ongoing entity. We added comet emojis to each other’s names in our phones.

In the beginning, all I knew about comets was that they are icy dust-balls that emit a pretty tail of atmospheric fuzz when they orbit past the sun and get overheated. This is also a description of me, Maggie, and my hair in any humid climate. But I began to learn more facts about comets, and as it happens, they are full of applications to romantic life. For example: A fantastic comet is rare. In any given year, there is usually only one comet that is visible to the naked eye. Most comets are — brace yourself for a peak Wikipedia insult — “faint and unspectacular.” There are “lost comets” and “great comets” and risky comets (“sungrazers”). Tove Jansson, in a story called “Comet in Moominland” described their brazen paths and called them “sky-tramps,” which I also love.

From the road, my former-fling-current-comet sent me a link to a Narratively testimony to the power of comets from Andy Izenson (lawyer by trade, and evident sweetheart by nature). When I messaged Andy about it, he replied while on the way to take his comet to a bus back to Boston. He surprised me by talking about comets mostly in terms of absence: “Loving someone who is far away is painful,” he pointed out. There might always be something about comets that’s associated with distance and yearning.  But that’s not necessarily the same thing as loss. (For that we have the cruel Germanic term for a quickie-romance “eintagsliebe,” which has a rude association with the lifespan of a mayfly, “eintagsfliege.”)

The best part of a comet, to me, is its visiting nature. When the comet’s in your view, there are all sorts of heart-eyes and attentive admiration and swoons; when you hear it swishing across your orbit again, it’s all very exciting and everything lights up immediately. But it’s not something to hang onto; it’s something to feel hopeful about. When you’re a comet, you imply a promise to return, but it’s the lowest-pressure promise. This is ideal for a skittish summer mood. You’ll see each other whenever your trajectories happen to align again.

A fling is past tense, something seen in the rearview mirror. The way a comet works, I think, is that it’s a fling in perpetuity. I thought of this Lore Segal line: “For sophistication’s sake I’ll tell you the nature of ardor is to cool, but I can’t believe it.” Comets make me think that the path of desire can have a more elliptical, eccentric roll-out.

The comet’s always there. There is something peaceful in its orbital nature. In a hellstorm time, when the safety of home is unsettled, hearing from a crush outside of your day-to-day world carries a kind of reassurance. Having affection for people in different places, getting hellos from different area codes, knowing there are little loves out of view — that can all be a deep comfort.

When, at the end of summer, I was packing up for a move, I was sorting through all my books to see which ones would make it into moving boxes (all of them, it turns out) and I found a comet-concept adjacent Michael Ondaatje passage. On a dog-eared page in The English Patient, he writes about mapping love and nature. A brief sentimentality warning — the heat at the time may have melted my brain:

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings.

We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.

All right, back to using the orbital forces of the universe to be sweet with each other. Tell your comets that they’re your comets. Give your great flings a space in your future oscillations. Did you catch the Perseid meteor shower, the celestial send-off of summer, and result of parent comet Swift-Tuttle? There will be one next year, if you didn’t, and I hope you enjoy it and appreciate it and love it when it passes through.

Instead of a Fling, Call That Short-Term Romance a Comet